INTERVIEW: Disney composer Christopher Willis talks making music for ‘Runaway Railway’ ride, Mickey Mouse Halloween special

in Disney, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Movies & TV, Music, Television, Theme Parks, Walt Disney World

When “Mickey Mouse” premiered in 2013, it brought the humor of classic Mickey shorts to a new generation of fans. The show features Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy and Pluto in modern settings and stories tend to have a bit of an edge. “Duck the Halls: A Mickey Mouse Christmas Special,” for example, sees Donald Duck on the brink of death because he’s determined to have a real winter holiday with his friends instead of migrating south.

The show’s composer, Christopher Willis, has worked on all four seasons of “Mickey Mouse,” including the 2016 Christmas special and the upcoming Halloween episode titled “The Scariest Story Ever: A Mickey Mouse Halloween Spooktacular.” Willis spoke with Inside the Magic about his work on the series and what Walt Disney World guests can look forward to on the new Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway attraction, which is based on the animated “Mickey Mouse” shorts.

Christoper Willis at 2014 Annie Awards

I loved the Christmas special, so I’m really looking forward to the Halloween episode.

Thanks very much. I think it’s wonderful. It’s very much what you would hope – it feels very spooky and festive in that particular Halloween way. The Halloween special has two more songs than the Christmas special; one is in the end credits and the other one happens in the middle of the action.

Were there any highlights from the Halloween special you really enjoyed working on?

In the episode, Mickey is trying to keep Huey, Dewey, and Louie entertained with scary stories and he’s not doing very well. What that means for me, musically, is that for each of the stories we go into a different stylistic world so I have to completely change gears, which is huge fun. I shouldn’t give too much away, but there’s some old-fashioned 1930s song music you hear and then there’s some very 1980s music, and then there’s some creepy Disney music, which provides more scares than one would expect.

Haunted Mansion-style?

There is some of that kind of thing. There’s also the tradition of European folk tales told in that Disney way.

In the Christmas special, it felt like there were a lot of references to classic Christmas things, like the Bing Crosby-inspired opening number and the sequence when Mickey’s childhood seems straight out of a Dickens novel. Did you have any specific references when creating those moments?

We listened to and watched lots of those things. We wanted to keep it vague so nostalgic feelings flood your brain without pointing to one specific place. It’s that yesteryear that seems to feel very Christmas-y in itself. It’s the crooners and their specials. Beyond that, there’s all the Victorian imagery of Christmas, which you get in the section where Mickey is reminiscing about his childhood, which inexplicably seems to be in about 1830 [Laughs].

There’s a wonderful Andy Williams Christmas special that we watched and endless images from that era that I saw papered around TVA [Disney Television Animation], and discussion about what felt Christmas-y in that vintage, timeless way.

You’ve been composing music for the “Mickey Mouse” series since it premiered in 2013, but how early did you get involved?

I pitched for the show in summer 2012. We worked on the first few over the rest of 2012 and they started airing in early 2013. I did a version of “No Service” [Season 1, Episode 2] and “Tokyo Go” [Season 1, Episode 5] to be cast for it. At that early stage they hadn’t animated yet, so these were demos that were written to animatics [an animated storyboard]. I met with Paul Rudish [executive producer and director], Aaron Springer [director], and Jay Stutler [Vice President, Music, Disney Television Animation], and Illya Owens [editor]. They showed me the animatics to “Yodelberg” [Season 1, Episode 3] and “Tokyo Go,” and a few others, and of course the episodes are completely crazy. It was a lot to take in.

We started getting into some very interesting conversations about what “Mickey Mouse” should sound like. We had this strange feeling the 1930s was a good place for Mickey Mouse-sounding music; New Orleans jazz, cabaret, small groups of musicians. And then strangely, the 50s and 60s when you get into Henry Mancini [Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther] — it’s almost kitsch, like the music you heard in TV commercials. But in between those two periods, with swing and war time big band sound, that didn’t seem quite so Mickey. Eventually I realized it’s because Mickey was born in the 20s and 30s and he had a kind of rebirth with Disneyland, so there’s these two hotspots in the 20th century with a very particular musical landscape.
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There’s quite a lot packed into every “Mickey Mouse” short. How long does it typically take to create one episode?

We do them in pairs, so it’s usually two per month. For the first draft of each one, I normally have a week or less. If it’s in a style that I’m not familiar with, then it’s a really crazy time. So it’s a crazy week on the first one, a crazy week on the second one, and then a crazy week and a half getting them orchestrated and recorded, getting a choir if we need one, getting them mixed. A lot of times, I’m working on another show at the same time.

Sometimes we’ll work on something way earlier. If there’s someone singing on screen, or something very intertwined about the music and the action, then we talk about it months before the show gets animated. In fact, on “Ku’u Lei Melody” [Season 3, Episode 16], we talked about it before there was even a storyboard and then I wrote the tune and came up with some ideas. In that episode, Mickey is playing a melody on his guitar and he gets stuck. A mysterious island spirit feeds him more pieces of the melody and leads him to Minnie, who miraculously is singing a different song. He realizes the answer is for them to sing their songs at the same time, which they do in the final 20 seconds or so. In order to make that work we had to really figure out the music first, which maybe would have been more than a year before we actually finished it.

WATCH – KU’U LEI MELODY:

There are episodes of the show that take place in other countries, and all dialogue is in another language. Do those take the same amount of preparation as “Ku’u Lei Melody”?

Sometimes if there’s one coming up like that, I’ll be warned and start researching it with a few months to go. It still tends to be a great ride. For example, with the Bollywood one [“Mumbai Madness,” Season 2, Episode 8], I did an enormous of amount of listening, thinking, and reading about Bollywood music and traditions. Then, if one of the first musicians I work with is someone who’s actually steeped in that culture, I can show them what I’ve got and we can talk about tuning systems or other arcane things. I can use that knowledge when I go to the next session with the musicians who don’t know it so well.

That was particularly useful on “Turkish Delights” [Season 3, Episode 14] because the tuning of music in Turkey is completely different from Western tuning. It’s a very rich, evocative effect once you get your ears around it.

Out of those particular episodes, which was the most challenging?

The two that stick out are “Mumbai Madness,” which still might be the most labor-intensive one, or “O Futebol Clássico,” which was set in Brazil. There’s an effect that goes by smoothly in the final cartoon that we labored over for a long time. The start of the cartoon is entirely Samba, so it’s the carnival drums you hear associated with soccer in Brazil. When the football match starts, the drums keep going as though they’re in the stadium and an orchestra comes in and scores it like it’s a cartoon, so there’s actually two pieces of music on top of each other. If you hear that something is a three and a half minute “Mickey Mouse” cartoon, you would never think something that insane is going to transpire.

WATCH – O FUTEBOL CLASSICO:

Do you have a favorite episode overall?

I’m not sure if it’s my favorite, but I’m still very fond of “O Sole Minnie” [the Italian episode from Season 1]. I have a classical music background; I was a musicologist for a while before I was a film composer and pieces of classical music are nearly always very nicely tied up. The end deals with things that were brought up at the start and it’s all very intricate. Ideally, what I’d like on all these cartoons is to do something very classical and “O Sole Minnie” kind of fell into that shape. At the end, we hear music that we heard at the start but it’s turned around and everything is tied up with a bow just as it fades to black. I think everyone involved did a really nice job on that one.

WATCH – O SOLE MINNIE:

You also compose music for “The Lion Guard,” a ‘Lion King’ spinoff show on Disney Junior. How long have you been involved in that series?

Jay Stutler got in touch and said they had an exciting new show based on “The Lion King” and it’s possible at first we were just discussing what a challenge it was going to be logistically, because the movie is such a musical extravaganza. Again, at an early stage there’s only so much you can see so you have to just have a conversation about the feel of the show and maybe see a few stills. I disappeared into my cave for a while and wrote a piece to get the ball rolling, and Ford Riley [executive producer] and the rest of the team were happy with it. In the end, the main titles [“Call of the Guard”] were based on that original piece. The full version of the theme song is available at the end of the “Lion Guard” soundtrack.

What’s one of your episode highlights from that series?

I really enjoyed the season 2 tentpole when we’re introduced to Scar, who is a ghostly apparition in the flames of the volcano. I think that’s going to be a really nice thread running through season 2. It’s a Disney Junior show, but it’s remarkable how it ranges from really light things that are comedic to quite dark problems the main characters have to face, and that one really stands out.

You’re also working on the new Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway attraction for Walt Disney World. What can you tell us about that?

I’ve been working on that for the last six months or so, and after talking to Disney Imagineer Kevin Rafferty about all sorts of technical things, I decided I had to go back to Disneyland. I had to not go as a tourist, but look really closely at the machinery and keep looking in all the directions you’re not supposed to look, trying to listen to how the musical loops run together. Disneyland is unbelievably seamless and it really becomes magical, but when you get to know the people behind it all, you realize how hard they work to make that happen.
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Do you have a favorite Disney attraction?

I’m very enchanted by Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and it’s a small world. I think we’re particularly preoccupied with the classics because Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway has something in common with those old rides. There are strains of Disney history being picked up in a very nice way, one of which is to have a new song for the ride and for the attraction be structured around the song.

The technology we have now is very different. On it’s a small world, famously, you’re hearing many musical loops that are all timed together so as you move from one room to another, you’re hearing different versions of the same song. On a new ride like the one we’re doing, you have extraordinary technology behind what music you’re hearing at what time and how it evolves.

Are there any other insights you can share about the new ride?

In many ways the ride has more in common with the oldest rides than it does with much newer ones. It’s like the 21st century evolution of the oldest rides. For Mickey Mouse finally getting his own attraction it’s just what it should be, and because of the building it’s in, you know it’s going to be big. You’re not just sitting in a simulator.

Much of it is brand new, so there isn’t really a template of how to work. We talk a lot and scratch our heads a lot about how things are going to fit together. It’s a little bit like working for NASA.

I can say the song is written. It’s well and truly done and making its way into the ride.

The artwork for Runaway Railway seems to have a similar retro vibe as The Great Movie Ride. Can we expect any nods to the previous attraction?

I believe there will be, yes. I don’t know any more than that, but they are all about Easter eggs and nods. The flavor of it will come very strongly from the “Mickey Mouse” shorts. It’s always sad when something goes away, but we’re really confident that people are going to like it.

Is there anything else you want to share about upcoming projects?

I have a movie coming out with Armando Iannucci, the creator of “Veep,” that’s premiering at Toronto Film Festival. The tone of is not very similar to “Mickey Mouse,” but people who have followed the music with interest might hear similarities. That film is called “The Death of Stalin.”

“The Scariest Story Ever: A Mickey Mouse Halloween Special” is expected to air on Disney Channel in October, but you can purchase it now along with “Duck the Halls: A Mickey Mouse Christmas Special” on a DVD package called “Merry & Scary.” Get it now at Target.

For more from Christopher Willis, be sure to follow him on Twitter.

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